Video Puts Attention on Hostages Held by Somali Pirates

A screengrab from a new video showing captured South Korean sailors being held for ransom and leverage by Somali pirates, March 2012.
A screengrab from a new video showing captured South Korean sailors being held for ransom and leverage by Somali pirates, March 2012.

Somali pirates are threatening to kill South Korean and Indian sailors if those nations do not free pirates they have captured and intend to try in court. Both countries, which have used their navies to attack pirates, refuse to directly deal with kidnappers. A new video showing captured South Korean sailors is re-focusing attention on the hostages.

Pirates who seized a Singaporean-flagged vessel and its crew nearly a year ago say they will not release four South Koreans until their demands are met.

A video broadcast by the independent Somali Channel shows the ship's master, chief engineer, chief mate and second mate being held at gunpoint on land. They explain that their captors demand millions of dollars in compensation for the families of pirates who were killed last year by South Korea's navy.

Speaking on the video, one of those kidnapped, Lee Sang-ho, said there are other demands, as well.

Captured pirates to be tried in South Korean court

Lee said the pirates insist that he and his three colleagues will not be freed unless the government in Seoul releases five Somalis taken prisoner in the South Korean navy operation last year. Commandos attacked a hijacked South Korean-operated chemical tanker, killing eight pirates and capturing five. All 21 members of the freighter's crew were rescued.

The captured pirates were brought to South Korea to stand trial for attempted murder and maritime robbery.

The four South Koreans in the video were taken hostage three months later - on April 30 last year - when their tanker was captured.

On November 30, 2011, the pirates released 13 Indonesians, five Chinese and three Burmese crew members from the tanker. They kept the South Koreans as bargaining chips.  

At that time, the South Korean foreign ministry said the Singaporean operators of the tanker had paid an undisclosed ransom.

South Korean hostages shown in video

The foreign ministry on Monday said it was not aware of the hostage video until contacted by VOA. Ministry officials asked VOA not to re-broadcast it, or report on the status of the South Korean captives, saying it would “not be helpful for the ongoing negotiating process” with the pirates.

On the video, which the captives say was recorded on March 15, the South Koreans complain their health is not good, they are in pain, suffer from a lack of food and water, and that they are in danger.

The plight of the captives is similar to that of seven Indian sailors held since September 2010. A ransom was paid last April, and the vessel and some of the crew were released.

Last year, Somalia's ambassador to India requested the return of more than 100 Somali pirates now in Indian jails.

India, South Korea and the United States are among the nations that have have used their navies to confront Somali pirates.

Money, revenge factor into pirates' motivation

Intelligence and research analyst Tim Hart at Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants in London said that has changed the circumstances. Now the pirates have a new motivation: revenge.

“The ransom is still, obviously, very much at the top of their minds. However, they can focus an awful lot on the political aspect, especially when there has been more offensive actions launched previously,” said Hart.

And that in turn, Hart said, puts hostages in greater peril.

“This political turn, combined with the increased reports about more mistreatment of hostages, shows how that structured model is kind of breaking down and they are getting more and more desperate as their success level falls,” he said.

With armed guards aboard vulnerable ships, and more international military action, the number of successful hijackings has been cut in half in the past few years.

Christian Le Mière, a naval forces and maritime security research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the recent decision to start attacking pirate bases on land is controversial.

“From a military operational perspective it's absolutely feasible. From a legal perspective it's questionable whether there are sovereignty issues at play here that won't be accepted. But the E.U. [European Union] recently suggesting it would launch on-land operations denotes that there is broader international agreement that such operations might be acceptable to prevent piracy on the high seas,” said Le Mière.

The International Maritime Bureau says, globally, 439 attacks at sea were reported to it last year. Nearly two-thirds occurred off Somalia in the crossroads of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden or in the Gulf of Guinea, along Africa's west coast.

Youmi Kim in Seoul and Mohammed Yusuf in Nairobi contributed to this report.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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